Tami Oldham and Richard Sharp’s story would feel like a tale ripped from the script of a 90s made-for-tv disaster flick, if it wasn’t so bizarrely true.
The couple’s head on collision with a Category 5 hurricane in the early 1980s is brought to life by Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur, returning to the world of survival films after 2016’s “Everest.”
At first glance, “Adrift” should be a relatively paint-by-numbers biopic, but creative storytelling and a truly remarkable performance from Shailene Woodley gives the film a much richer tone in the vein of Jean-Marc Vallee’s 2014 film “Wild.”
Woodley stars as free-spirited nomad Tami, sailing into port in Tahiti with nothing in particular to do when she becomes infatuated by the equally cavalier Brit, Richard, played by Sam Claflin. Their quick romance leads to a yacht trip across the Pacific and into the eye of Hurricane Raymond.
Woodley delivers a knockout performance with a relentless effort to match Tami’s during the ordeal. The talented young actress displays a wide array of emotions as a woman frayed by physical and mental turmoil, stranded at sea thousands of miles from land.
There’s a deliberate precision to her performance as Woodley embodies Tami’s will to survive in a way that feels authentic and not caricature. Scenes with her alone on a broken-down yacht are perhaps the most engaging, astounding of the entire film.
Claflin, on the other hand, plays Richard with a much looser grip, which comes across as an actor phoning in a performance from time to time. In a two-handed like “Adrift,” both leading performances have to be equally strong for one not to stick out like a sore thumb. Woodley gives it her all from the opening moments to the final frame while Claflin appears to mentally check in and out of the film. It just feels off.
Unsurprisingly, scenes outside the boat are pleasantly enjoyable to watch in the moment and yet almost instantaneously forgettable after leaving the theater. If audiences are to connect with Tami and Richard as a couple, empathizing with their plight is key as their rushed romance does little to pull viewers in.
While Woodley puts in concerted effort to their chemistry, Claflin’s casual, almost laxidasical approach to the character makes buying into the duo as a couple next to impossible.
Imperfect, casual romances seem to be a recurring theme in Kormakur’s films as “Adrift” finds itself plagued with a similarly unbalanced relationship to those in his previous disaster film “Everest,” where the women in the hikers’ lives took even more of a backseat than Claflin does here.
Stories of survival told on the big screen typically have a clinical almost formulaic approach, where audiences have the foreknowledge of knowing things are going to get bad in a hurry long before the characters do.
Kormakur and the team of writers behind the film’s screenplay attempt to subvert this traditional narrative by thrusting viewers right into the middle of the action in the opening seconds. Then in a style heavily influenced by the work of British auteur Christopher Nolan, the film’s timeline becomes muddled as “Adrift” hops back and forth between the before, during and aftermath of the hurricane.
The intent is clear. Audiences are expected to engage with “Adrift” quickly ala traditional action movies before pulling back and allowing the story to unfold and the connection between filmmaker and audience to become deeper.
The result, however, is more of a mixed bag. Occasionally, the time jumping works and events unfolding on the yacht are better explained and contextualized through flashback sequences.
More often than not, the herky-jerky of the film’s editing leaves audiences emotionally seasick as “Adrift” wanders back and forth through time far too often.
When events are unfolding on the yacht, “Adrift” rides the line between good and great filmmaking thanks in large part to Woodley’s outstanding performance and the expert cinematography of Robert Richardson, who vividly captures the depth and scale of a lonely Pacific Ocean in both mild and chaotic conditions.
While events are based on a true story, it’s important for audiences not to spoil themselves before heading to the theater. Viewers willing to let things play out on screen will surely be rewarded.
Those intrigued by the overarching premise of the film or fans of Woodley’s increasingly special body of work outside the “Divergent” franchise should take a chance and get lost with “Adrift.”